SAN FRANCISCO -- Bill Walsh sat back in Eddie DeBartolo's private box at the Superdome in New Orleans and watched his San Francisco 49ers put together the perfect game.
It was last January. Super Bowl XXIV. San Francisco 55, Denver 10.
"It was agonizing," Walsh recalled the other day. "I felt really alone and isolated."
It's been 22 months since Walsh decided that three Super Bowl titles in 10 seasons as the coach of the 49ers was enough to justify The Genius label that he was proud to call his very own. He built the Niners, he refined them, he developed the ultimate system quarterback in Joe Montana, he had enough.
Or had he? Walsh makes it seem that he would give anything to be on the sidelines Monday night for the showdown between the New York Giants and San Francisco. After all, he was the first to come up with a creative way to block LT.
I speak to Walsh periodically during the football season. See him every now and then at games. He's in his second season as the No. 1 analyst for NBC, and he's pretty visible. Every time we talk, I get the impression that he regrets his decision to leave the 49ers more and more. He thought it would get easier by now. He was wrong.
And it certainly doesn't help that his handpicked replacement, George Seifert, is 27-3, and took the 49ers on a National Football League record-tying, 18-game winning streak, broken last week by the Los Angeles Rams.
It's supposed to be difficult replacing a legend, even if it's a legend in his own mind. Phil Bengston bombed in Green Bay after taking over for Vince Lombardi. Ray Perkins was all but run out of Alabama after succeeding Bear Bryant. But Seifert's 49ers may be even better than Walsh's. And that hurts.
Consider what Walsh said a year ago as the Niners, then 9-2, got ready to play the Giants in what turned out to be a classic Monday night game: "When I see the 49ers play, it's the football that I devised, developed and refined over the last 20 years of my life. It's like doing a painting, your final piece of work, and somebody else has it on their wall. You're proud of it, but it's not yours anymore. That's a very natural feeling for a coach or architect."
Now look at what Walsh is saying this year about his break from the 49ers. It doesn't sound like he's handling it any better. Who says time heals all wounds?
"I miss the 49ers, seeing the team that I basically had the responsibility of putting together . . . establishing that passing game . . . drafting those men and signing them," he said. "It's tough to be an outsider and be a part of it. It's best to stay as clear as you can except for seeing players on occasion. I'm out of that loop now. It's tough for anybody to leave a career and go to something else, especially when you've been with a big winner."
Walsh had opportunities to get right back into coaching after the 1989 season. The New England Patriots offered him the chance to be their GM/coach. He turned it down.
The first person Dick Steinberg offered the Jets job to was Walsh. He said thanks but no thanks and recommended Bruce Coslet and Mike Holmgren.
Could the 49ers have done as well if Walsh had stayed on?
Even he's not so sure. Many of the players talked openly about how they were burned out on Walsh, and how the switch to Seifert and the need to prove they could win without Walsh provided as much motivation last year as had the desire to be the first team since the 1978-79 Pittsburgh Steelers to repeat.
"I wonder what would have happened if I stayed," Walsh said. "Reflecting now, I was pretty dominating as a person for 10 years. Sometimes it's best for everybody that you leave."
What would prompt Walsh to return to coaching? The challenge of one game, like tomorrow night's. Or a Super Bowl. But he says his desire to stay in San Francisco and his doubts about getting psyched for the long season make it a long shot that he will ever coach again. But that doesn't mean the rumors will go away. Already, his name has been linked to the Rams if John Robinson quits or is fired.
"If it was for one game, it would be fine," Walsh said. "But when I go out and see these coaches with the circles under their eyes, oh boy, six months of that. Then only one team wins.
"If I were much younger, I could go through the whole process again of building a team. But with me, winning it all or coming close would be the only thing. And that's an awful lot to ask. It would be awfully hard to get motivated." Walsh said he didn't watch last year's Giants-49ers game. And doubts if he will watch Monday night.
"I'm purposely not watching," he said. "It's too tough to watch."
He would just as soon not watch his players, his system. But he does pick his old club to beat the Giants.
"The Giants lose whatever advantage they have in the physical sense going to San Francisco," he said. "If the game were played at the Meadowlands with the typical winds and the cold, the Giants would have a distinct advantage. Most likely the field will be reasonable and the weather will be reasonable, so the 49ers can execute their passing game."
But let's not call Walsh a genius in picking games. He said he doubted the Giants could wipe out a big lead against the Niners. Yet, last year the 49ers led 24-7, and the Giants caught them at 24, before losing 34-24 in a game that really could have been theirs.
Against a team that was once Walsh's. He has such a large ego that he can make it tough to feel sorry for him. But the pain of being away from his 49ers is so evident that it's sad.